The end of 2009 is quickly approaching and in even though we still have an important month of watching ahead of us many are already jumping the gun and making lists of the decades best… everything. I shudder at just how many of these lists we’re going to have to sort through in the not too distant future, not that my hands are clean of this, I’ve been working on my lists for well over a year in advance. Anyway, I bring this up because many will be looking back and thinking about the various filmmakers who have defined a decade of cinema, and I cannot imagine a grouping of such filmmakers that won’t include Steven Soderbergh. If for nothing else Soderbergh must be recognized for just how prolific he is. In an era where major filmmakers can spend ten years and only make three to four films Soderbergh has made twelve, thirteen if you count Che as two. Some of these movies were blockbusters (the “Ocean’s” movies), some were serious (Traffic), some were funny (The Informant), some were fantastical (Solaris), some were nostalgic (The Good German), and then there were the ones that were experimental even by Soderberghian standards. By these I am mainly referring to Full Frontal, Bubble, and this newer one, The Girlfriend Experience.
The Girlfriend Experience is a film about a woman named Christine (Sasha Grey) who’s recently begun working as a high class prostitute. The title refers to a particular type of prostitution that Christine specializes in; she will escort her Johns and pretend to be a longtime girlfriend throughout the night. She’s living with a (real) boyfriend named Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer who knows about Christine’s job but seems to be alright with it.
As far as story goes, that’s about all there is to tell. This is a movie where not a lot happens, it’s all about simply taking a peak into this person’s life for a little while. The movie is set in a very specific time, at the height of the recent financial crisis and before the election of Barrack Obama. Almost everyone in the movie seems to have this crisis on the back of their mind and they talk about it a lot, only without saying much of anything insightful about it. As a matter of fact, not many people say much of anything insightful at all in this movie. All of the dialogue is naturalistic, possibly to a fault, it is very good at capturing with complete reality the way people tend to speak to each other, but that means listening to a lot of dull and banal conversations throughout.
The conventional wisdom today when making something as aggressively realistic as this is to shoot in a similarly naturalistic, handheld style, on cameras that are almost consumer grade. But Soderbergh has completely ignored this conventional wisdom here and on his last film Bubble, instead he’s shot both films with some incredibly vivid widescreen cinematography. I suppose that one of the benefits of being your own cinematographer is that you don’t need to hire a second string DP when your budget is smaller than usual.
The film’s star is Sasha Grey who started her career making hardcore pornography. She is an interesting choice for the role, after all the original plan for this series of experimental films was to find a location and use local non actors to form a story, and it’s not easy to cast an actual hooker. Grey does work in this film, though I have my doubts as to whether she has much more potential outside of the genre she’s traditionally worked in, this is a non-actor performance through and through. Chris Santos is good too, but in the same capacity.
As has been said in pretty much any review of this movie, this is an experimental work and needs to be viewed as such, if you’re not interested in the experiment this movie has nothing for you. Sometimes I think critics are a bit too excited to heap praise on experimental works simply because they’re experimental. Often these movies will have a few interesting things going for them but they won’t really work for me as an actual cinematic viewing experience. I’ve definitely gotten that feeling from some of Gus Van Sant’s experimental work as of late, I got it from Bubble, and I definitely got it from this film. I won’t dismiss this, because there are some things to appreciate about it on some intellectual level, but it didn’t really elicited much from me except for a passive interest in some of the aspects of the filmmaking. This is for Soderbergh devotees only.
**1/2 out of Four